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Interspecies diplomat

To help communities manage conflict with wildlife, a conservation biologist starts by listening


The first time Gabi Fleury heard a wild cheetah’s heartbeat, through a stethoscope placed on the sedated animal’s spotted fur, the conservation biologist couldn’t help but cry. It was the realization of a childhood dream and one of the turning points in a young life full of them, including a cancer diagnosis that nearly made it all impossible.

“What hit me in that moment was a sense of incredible fragility. Being able to hear that cat’s heartbeat and thinking there’s fewer than 7,000 of them left and they could be wiped out,” Fleury says of that moment in 2018 while working with the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia.

Today, Fleury, a 2015-16 Rotary global grant scholar, helps communities find creative ways to lessen human-wildlife conflict, primarily involving carnivores like cheetahs, leopards, and African wild dogs that get too close to domestic livestock, homes, and farms. Because of habitat loss and conservation measures themselves, human-wildlife conflict has grown in complexity, whether it involves car collisions with deer in North America or crop raiding by elephants that contributes to food insecurity in parts of Africa or Asia.

“If I hadn’t had that [Rotary global] grant,” says Gabi Fleury, “I probably wouldn’t be in this field.”

Image credit: Sharon Vanorny

Fleury splits her time between fieldwork she’s starting in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert and the heavy workload of a PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. For Fleury, conservation is as much about preserving the livelihoods of livestock producers as it is about saving wildlife, leading her to call herself an “interspecies diplomat.”

Fleury’s fascination with wildlife began as a child in Boston and deepened during a long recovery from osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer, with which she was diagnosed at age 7. She went through 21 rounds of chemotherapy, the removal of a significant portion of one of her lower leg bones, and years of physical therapy to learn to walk again. “A lot of my experience of nature wasn’t through hiking or camping because I physically couldn’t do it,” she says. “It was more through books and documentaries.” Most fascinating of all to Fleury was the cheetah, an animal with such speed and beauty but whose survival was precarious.

As a cancer survivor, Fleury understood time was not a given. To recover and work in conservation, she remembers thinking, “I’d better get cracking.” “Conservation is what got me physically able to walk again because I wanted to be a conservationist so badly.”

Gabi Fleury

  • Rotary global grant scholar, 2015-16
  • PhD student in environment and resources, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2022-present
  • Forbes 30 Under 30 Science list, 2021

Fleury, who spent several weeks in the field last summer, shows off a customized leg brace covered in graffiti art that she’s been using. “I am very open about it because there isn’t a lot of representation of people with physical limitations in the wildlife field,” she says. “And it’s good to show that with adjustments we can do anything other people can do.”

There were other obstacles to overcome. The field of international wildlife conservation is wildly competitive. Fleury compares it to trying to become an astronaut. And the expense of an advanced degree was out of reach. Fortunately, Fleury heard about Rotary scholarships from her undergraduate thesis adviser and applied. She was awarded a $30,000 Rotary Foundation global grant scholarship, sponsored by the Rotary Club of Roggebaai, South Africa, and Rotary District 7570, which fully funded her 2016 master’s degree at the University of Cape Town.

“If I hadn’t had that grant, I probably wouldn’t be in this field,” Fleury says, as her cat wanders in and out of view during a video interview from her home in Madison.

Today, Fleury is part of a generation of community-centered conservationists sensitive to the needs and traditions of local people, many of whose livelihoods — and even mental health — are at stake in conflicts with wildlife. Fleury’s work starts with listening. “A common misconception is people are just upset about losing a calf or a sheep; that it is an economic loss only. But there are psychological components as well,” Fleury says. “It’s not just an attack on their economics, it could be an attack on who they are as a person, their status in the community, and it could even impact their sense of safety.”

During her time in Namibia, a farmer called Fleury’s team members, urging them to “come get your cat” and threatening to shoot the cheetah if they didn’t arrive within the hour. “We drove as fast as we could,” Fleury says, but it was too late. “The sad part about that is when we examined the calf that had been killed, which had started this whole thing, it was clearly a leopard kill.” But the team talked to the man about what to do in the future and thanked him for at least calling them.

Left: With Rotary’s help, Fleury earned her master’s degree at the University of Cape Town. Right: In Botswana, Fleury studies cheetahs in the Kalahari Desert. Courtesy of Gabi Fleury.

Many creative solutions come from the communities themselves, with their deep ecological knowledge. In Botswana, Zimbabwe, and other parts of Africa, for instance, villagers often dig trenches to protect gardens from elephants, which can’t easily jump across. They sometimes use chiles that irritate elephants and act as a deterrent, or plant diversion crops to draw animals away from other fields.

As a side project, Fleury worked with a software engineer to design a first-of-its-kind video game on how to prevent livestock losses. The game, Operation Ferdinand, uses only pictures to reduce language barriers when being used internationally.

Beyond fieldwork, Fleury is helping shift the narrative about who belongs in the conservation space. Fleury’s racial heritage is diverse: Her mother is of Irish and German descent and her father is Brazilian of mixed African and Indigenous Brazilian descent. Fleury is a founding member of the Black Mammologists movement celebrating Black and Indigenous scientists. Diversity enriches the field, but Fleury believes it’s also essential to its future by eliminating barriers.

Other goals on Fleury’s radar include drawing attention to understudied areas such as Botswana’s portion of the Kalahari, home to one of the largest remaining populations of cheetahs, and learning more about local techniques to mitigate conflict. What keeps her going is the complexity of what she calls the “wicked” problems of science. Thinking about them and the potential solutions, her face lights up with an infectious smile. “I like a challenge.”

This story originally appeared in the April 2024 issue of Rotary magazine.

The Wildlife Conservation Rotary Fellowship is working toward building a future in which people and nature thrive.